How can you use your Imagination in your photography? Read on, dear friend, and I’ll tell you.

It seems to me that I have an unusual view of my own work. I’ve often been asked how I felt about critiques and whether I have ever submitted my work for one. My answer is that my work has indeed been critiqued but that I’m uninterested in what the critics have to say. I’ve also submitted my work to the major photography competitions and have won awards. But I found myself curiously unexcited by winning. I’m far more interested in what those who experience my work as viewers have to say.

I’ve realized that I’m only attached to my work while I’m making it. After that, it goes out into the world and has a life of its own. My hope, of course, is that those who see it will get some sense of what I was trying to say about my inner state when I made it and that they will be moved in some way. For me, it’s the process of making that’s important. I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you’ve experienced that “rush” you get when you’re really on to something. The juices are flowing, and you’re just working away. I get like that. Sometimes, when I’m finished with a piece of work, I’ll look at it and think, “where did that come from?” I’ll even have to go back through my Photoshop layer stack to figure out how I did it. That’s what I mean by “being grabbed by an idea and seeing it through.” I call it “Riding the Daemon”. When that happens, the work becomes less about the actual process and more about my Imaginal experience. If I’m lucky, that starts even before I click the shutter. And I’ve found that the more in tune I am with that, the more satisfied I am with my work. It’s also far more likely that other people will react to it in the way I intended.

What Makes Art “Great”?

All of this makes me wonder what it is about a piece of art that makes it “a great work”. Why do we continue to flock to museums, concert halls, and theaters to experience the same old art? I think it’s not the painting, sculpture, music, or plays that we crave. We crave the inner experience they produce in us. Why do so many of the classic rock bands still fill arenas? Not because we want to hear the songs. We’ve heard them a million times. It’s because of how the experience of listening to that music performed in a live environment makes us feel. In that concert hall, the music becomes something else. For some, it’s a time machine. Others feel a sense of freedom or elation or a deepening of some event or state of mind. The point is that there is something else going on besides a bunch of people listening to some songs. The music itself has no “literal” meaning. It’s a bunch of notes and words strung together. That’s it. Its power lies in the plain fact that it lifts us out of the framework of everyday life and frees us into the world of soul and spirit, both of which can only be described and understood metaphorically.

In our world, we try to define everything. We want to break it down, take it apart, give all of the parts a label, and then put it into a neat little box. In doing that, we cripple our experience of everything because some things are more than their parts. Here’s an example of what I mean: If someone asked you to tell them what a raisin is, you might say “it’s a dried grape.” That’s true. But a grape is also so much more than that! What about its flavor, color, texture, and odor? Not to mention its uses for other things. Describing a raisin as a dried grape is much different than saying that it’s like the difference between lemonade and lemon juice. One is merely a physical description while the other speaks metaphorically to intensity, concentration, form, the intervention of the hand of man, and the like. It brings to mind all sorts of connections and comparisons on many different levels that are lost in the concept of “a dried grape”.

How To Use Imagination In Your Photography

Think of your photography in this way. Don’t try to define it or force it into a box. Think in terms of metaphor and analogy. Let go of the literal meaning of whatever you’re shooting. The word for this is “deliteralization” and it’s vital for art-making. Ask yourself “what is this like?” instead of asking “what is this?” Photograph an idea instead of a thing. Focus your attention and keep it simple! Cluttered minds produce cluttered compositions. Be mindful and let the work happen on its own. It’s already speaking to you.

You really only need to do two things. First, just listen! Be in the place where you’re shooting. Be there and nowhere else. Turn off your phone. Set aside time, go by yourself, and don’t rush. If you work with a partner, pick one carefully. Choose someone you gel with creatively, who sees things in a similar way, one with whom you can swap ideas and points of view. I sometimes shoot with a partner, and we see things and come up with ideas that neither of us would have on our own.

Second, develop your technical skill so you can express the ideas and Images when they come to you. If you’re mindful about your photography, you’ll know when they show up. Be prepared and grab onto them when they appear!

Embrace your failures. They have something to teach you so don’t toss them away. Save them and look at them later, when the experience of making them has faded. That’s when they’ll give up their secrets. We all fail. Even the greatest photographers in the world fail far more often than not. I experiment all the time, and I shoot the snot out of everything.  I have over 104,000 photos in my catalog. Maybe 100 of them will make their way into my portfolio. More than 1000 to 1.  How’s that for a success rate? No one ever tells you that part. But I’ve learned a ton by looking at my failures.

One Last Thing

Don’t try to understand or define your work. When you do that, you put it in a box and you take away its ability to stretch and grow and morph into something else. You take away its power to touch someone else on a deeper level. You turn it into a raisin. Putting it in a box amputates its roundness and its spaciousness which are the very things that it’s about in the first place. To paraphrase Henry Corbin, what you are left with is the husk of a dead angel. It’s pretty and it looks like art but it has no inner power. It’s like going to the classic rock concert. You’ve heard the songs a million times before and you know them all by heart. What you’re really after is the experience, not the songs themselves. Let your photography be about the experience too. Immerse yourself in the process of making it. When the work is done and the piece is finished, let it go and let your viewers have their experience of it. Think of it as a historical record, not of the thing you photographed, but of yourself in a particular time and place in your life.